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Russia suspected of funneling funds to Germany’s AfD party for pro-Russian messaging

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is being investigated for potential involvement in a Russian influence operation. Reports suggest that hundreds of thousands of euros from a pro-Putin network were directed to European politicians, including AfD members.
Logo of Russia’s propaganda online platform “Voice of Europe.” Photo: Voice of Europe / youtube, via Spiegel.
Russia suspected of funneling funds to Germany’s AfD party for pro-Russian messaging

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) far-right party is under scrutiny for its potential involvement in a Russian influence operation targeting EU countries. Research by the German news magazine SPIEGEL and the Czech newspaper “Deník N” suggests that AfD member Petr Bystron may have received funds from a pro-Russian network, a claim he denies as “slander.” Reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of euros from Russia have been directed to European politicians, including at least one AfD parliamentarian, linked to a network supported by a close Putin ally.

According to “Denik N” citing assessments by Czech authorities spearheading the probe, Putin’s crony Viktor Medvedchuk’s network funneled cash to political candidates in six EU nations – Germany, France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Hungary. The money pipeline is suspected to have been established through the disinformation website “Voice of Europe.”

AfD’s suspected role in Russian influence scheme

The allegations have zeroed in on AfD politicians Maximilian Krah and Petr Bystron, who are leading the party’s campaign for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June. Intelligence reportedly suggests they received illicit funds from Medvedchuk’s pro-Kremlin network to promote Russian narratives through interviews with the pro-Russian platform Voice of Europe.

Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and leader of the Opposition Bloc – For Life, is closely associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter. Sanctioned by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council in 2021, Medvedchuk faced charges of treason, aiding terrorism, and illegal activities in Crimea. He was placed under house arrest in May 2021, escaped during Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, but was detained by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) in April 2022. In September 2022, Medvedchuk was exchanged for 200 Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russians, and he has been under US sanctions since 2014 for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

“The fact that even leading AfD politicians have repeatedly appeared on the disinformation portal shows that The AfD’s Putin friends are repeatedly allowing themselves to be harnessed here and made part of the Russian propaganda apparatus,” said Nancy Faeser, according to Spiegel.

Both AfD members have longstanding ties to Medvedchuk, an ally of President Vladimir Putin sanctioned for disseminating propaganda while playing a role in Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, Krah and Bystron paid a “solidarity visit” to the then-Kyiv-based oligarch while he was under house arrest in Kyiv on treason charges.

Krah has denied any wrongdoing, stating he merely gave two unpaid interviews to the website. Bystron has yet to comment on the specific allegations against him.

The “Voice of Europe” pipeline

According to the Czech government’s data, the pro-Russian website Voice of Europe served as a vehicle not only to spread Kremlin propaganda but also to covertly finance European political candidates deemed favorable to Moscow’s interests.

Voice of Europe, a website with the EU star logo and dark blue design, offers articles in 15 languages, including awkwardly phrased political and economic news. Oddities include strange translations, Cyrillic letters in the source code, and a Russian search function, Spiegel says.

Funds amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros were allegedly transferred either via cash handovers during meetings in Prague or through cryptocurrency channels. A former producer for a pro-Russian TV channel in Ukraine, Artem Marchevskyi, is accused of directly overseeing Voice of Europe’s operations.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser spoke of an “important blow against the Russian propaganda apparatus.” It was “important that this influence operation was uncovered before the European elections,” the SPD politician told Spiegel.

Both Medvedchuk and Marchevskyi and their media company were slapped with sanctions by the Czechs this week over their roles in the alleged scheme to “promote political and propaganda activities” opposing Ukraine while bankrolling select European Parliament candidates through “covert financial support.”

On 27 March, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala announced the imposition of sanctions on the website, as well as on Viktor Medvedchuk and his associate Artem Marchevskyi, who has been residing in the Czech Republic since 2022, according to Le Monde.

The website for Voice of Europe has gone offline, but its social media accounts remain active on Telegram with a rebranded identity, though no new content has been posted since the allegations emerged.

Allegations spark outrage and demands for accountability

The claims have sparked bipartisan outrage in Germany, with lawmakers insisting a thorough investigation be conducted into any improper Russian financing or illicit activities by the AfD ahead of the EU elections.

“Russia is undermining our democracy,” said FDP interior expert Konstantin Kuhle. “Right-wing parties and politicians are being greased from Moscow. Society is being worn down with targeted disinformation.”

SPD interior politician Sebastian Hartmann warned that the Kremlin is waging a multi-pronged “hybrid war” against the West through cyber attacks, disinformation, poll interference, and covert funding of extremist groups – including apparent overtures toward the AfD.

According to Spiegel, there are also calls for bolstering the powers of German law enforcement and intelligence agencies to combat foreign meddling and illicit funding streams benefiting adversaries like Moscow.

With Ukraine continuing to battle the Russian invasion, the unmasking of the alleged Kremlin influence operation specifically targeting the European polls has reignited fears over Moscow’s willingness to weaponize disinformation and covert financing to undermine democratic processes abroad.

Growing evidence of Russia courting European far-right

The recent allegations of financial support for AfD politicians are a testament to the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy to forge alliances with far-right and anti-EU factions across Europe. By reportedly backing candidates favorable to Moscow’s interests through covert means, Russia continues to exert its influence on the political landscape of the continent.

From providing a multi-million euro loan to France’s Front National party a decade ago, to Russian diplomats grooming rising stars in the AfD’s youth wing, Moscow has long been suspected of extending its reach into European fringe political circles receptive to its worldview. Kremlin-backed actors have also been accused of injecting disinformation into the online domains of these groups.

Recently, Marine Le Pen, former leader of France’s far-right Front National and known as “Putin’s friend,” unexpectedly criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine during a parliamentary debate, despite her history of echoing Kremlin narratives and evidence of Moscow’s financial support for her party’s growth, including legitimizing Crimea’s annexation.

Read the follow-up article:

MEPs call to investigate Russia’s bribery of EU politicians

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